Whilst it’s nice to see a Labour Party policy dominating the news agenda for once, I can’t help but feel disheartened by their universal free school meals policy. The plan is simple: charge the parents of children who attend private schools a tax of 20% on their fees and use the money to provide a free school lunch to every child in a state-maintained primary school.
What initially sounds like a progressive idea, taking from the wealthiest to give to the neediest, quickly crumbles under scrutiny. It’s more take from the wealthiest to give to the slightly-less-wealthy. The threshold below which a family is eligible for Free School Meals is currently a household income of £16,190 – I would argue that should be raised. Means-assessed benefits are never perfect and need to be refined and developed to ensure people who need support don’t slip through the net. We need to make sure that all children who need free school meals get them but universal free school meals is a clumsy solution and has unexpected costs to many schools, especially when they have had to expand their kitchens. This is fine but they have had no additional money to pay for it.
On one level this is a debate about universalism and means-assessed benefits. One of the arguments for universalism is that it removes the stigma from benefits and helps to build public consent for the welfare state. Having taught dozens of Free School Meals children one thing that was clear was that they didn’t know they were receiving free school meals. They just knew they were “school dinners” as were many of their peers. I can’t comment on whether there is more of a stigma at Secondary school but this policy wouldn’t affect them anyway.
One aspect of this policy that I haven’t heard being discussed is the impact it could have on Pupil Premium funding. Introducing universal free school meals would inevitably result in parents no longer applying for them – because, why would you? The Pupil premium is worth around £1,300 per child every year and is allocated on the basis of the number of children claiming free school meals (or who have claimed them at any time in the last six years.) Combined with the fact that schools face a real terms cut in budgets of 8% on average by 2019-20 the implications of losing pupil premium funding could be severe and it would be schools in the most deprived areas of country who would be hit the hardest. We saw this happen in 2014 when free school meals were introduced for all KS1 pupils. The number of parents registering for FSM dropped by as much as 50% in some schools and leaves schools having to chase up low income families and ask them to register for the extra funding: this is can be a very costly bureaucratic process.
So what could Labour have announced instead? One idea is funding free breakfast clubs for Pupil Premium pupils – as they do in Wales. Research has found that attending a breakfast club improves concentration and raises attainment. Over the last few years I’ve provided breakfast for over a dozen children on a daily basis. I provided cereal bars, loaves of bread and cartons of juice as I knew that there were children in my class who hadn’t had a proper meal since their school lunch the previous day. The average breakfast club costs just £4,000 a year to run which makes it a more affordable policy than universal free school meals and would benefit those who needed it the most.
I think what it comes down to is that this policy is just a bit lazy. It doesn’t solve any of the problems schools are facing today and suggests that Labour aren’t tuned in to the current debate and aren’t interested in addressing the very real issues school are facing: a teacher recruitment crisis, savage budget cuts, an assessment system that simply doesn’t work and an alarming “feeling in the air” about what’s happening to pupil behaviour as hard times continue to bite for many families. I wonder how many school leaders and teachers they ran this policy past before announcing it? I wonder how many ideas from professionals they really listened to first?
A radical, modern Labour Party would address those issues rather than fall back on a favourite policy that was first implemented over 100 years ago. What was true in the imagined post-war golden age of Big State Britain is still true now: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.